Thu, Jun 20, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Will safeguarding Internet privacy delete 21st-century history?

Archivists, genealogists, history professors and others who rely on records say that an EU proposal that would ensure Web users’ ‘right to be forgotten’ will be tantamount to erasing history because online documents are the ‘first draft’ of 21st-century history

By Eric Pfanner  /  NY Times News Service, SERRAVAL, France

Illustration: Mountain People

A s a European proposal to bolster digital privacy safeguards faces intense lobbying from Silicon Valley and other powerful groups in Brussels, an obscure, but committed, group has joined in the campaign to keep personal data flourishing online.

One of the EU’s measures would grant Internet users a “right to be forgotten,” letting them delete damaging references to themselves in search engines, or drunken party photographs posted on social networking sites. However, a group of French archivists — the people whose job it is to keep society’s records — is asking: What about our collective right to keep a record even of some things that others might prefer to forget?

The archivists and their counteroffensive might seem out of step, as concern grows about US surveillance of Internet traffic around the world. Yet the archivists say the right to be forgotten, as it has become known, could complicate the collection and digitization of mundane public documents — birth reports, death notices, real-estate transactions and the like — that form a first draft of history.

“Today, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter — this is the correspondence of the 21st century,” said Jean-Philippe Legois, president of the Association of French Archivists, which has about 1,700 members. “If we want to understand the society of today in the future, we have to keep certain traces.”

The group represents a wide swath of professionals who specialize in preserving and cataloging documents from institutions as diverse as town halls or museums. Still, supporters of the French campaign acknowledged the growing concern about digital privacy, after the disclosure of the extensive US intelligence project known as PRISM to mine data from Internet companies for security purposes.

To try to persuade EU lawmakers to drop or soften the proposed rules on digital privacy, the French archivists introduced a petition, circulated to their counterparts in other countries. The group says the petition has received almost 50,000 signatures, which it will present to the European Parliament.

The group also commissioned advertising posters underlining the threat it sees. One shows a metaphorical image of demonstrators marching through Paris, their faces hidden by digitally appended clown masks. It asks: “Without a name, does individual commitment still have the same meaning?”

The archivists know that their influence is limited as parliament is lobbied by myriad Internet companies, governments and other organizations, which have submitted about 4,000 amendments to the proposed law for the EU’s 27 member states. This month, several proposals were softened, including the plan to require companies to obtain “explicit” consent from users to collect and process their data, though the US surveillance revelations could renew the push for tougher rules.

The right to be forgotten is one of the most contentious items.

The European Commission has drawn support from consumer organizations and privacy advocates, but the archivists have received backing from other European professionals who rely on record-keeping, including genealogists and history professors.

Advocates of the right to be forgotten say it is unrealistic to expect Internet companies like Google and Facebook, which collect huge amounts of data on their users in order to direct relevant advertising to them, to put safeguards in place without stricter regulations.

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